Past slushy roads lined with brick houses and charpoys heavy with men smoking hookahs in Mewat, Haryana, is a one-room non-formal school where 15-odd girls are learning Mathematics. Their faces half-covered by dupattas, they are immersed in sums, knowing fully well that all the lessons will probably add up to nothing more than a faint memory of childhood. As Shashibala, the teacher of the class who identifies herself only by her first name, explains, "Their parents will not send them to school, the community doesn't believe in educating girls."

Shakila Parvin, the mother of 14-year-old Shama, one of the students in the class, gives another reason why she does not plan to send her daughter to school. "The secondary school is 10 km away and there's no transport here. It is not safe for my daughter to travel alone." Such fears are commonplace in Mewat, which has become notorious today as one of the most 'educationally backward' districts in India, in spite of the efforts made both by the government and non-government organisations. The enormous number of schemes in place to improve the district's education scene is not reflected in the statistics at least as far as secondary education is concerned. While there are 622 primary schools in the district, there are only 159 schools catering to the secondary level — a distressing gap that continues to erode Mewat's chances of scoring better progress reports in education.

Such skewed statistics, unfortunately, is not Mewat's prerogative alone. Across the country, while colourful banners promote Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the government initiative to universalise primary education, secondary education has been relegated to the backbenches, very often at the cost of a meaningful learning process.

Dismal statistics

Figures put out by the Ministry of Human Resource Development's Department of School Education and Literacy indicate that as many as two-thirds of those eligible for secondary and senior secondary education remain outside the school system today. While noting that adequate number of elementary schools is to be found at a "reasonable distance from habitations", the ministry admits in its website (at that this is not the case with regard to secondary schools and colleges. The gross enrolment rate for elementary education in 2003-04 was 85 percent, but for secondary education, the enrolment figure stood at 39 percent.

Children play outside a secondary school in Mewat. Pic: Deepa A.

Furqan Qamar, director of the Centre for Management Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, who has written many papers on secondary education, points out, "Only 6-8 percent of all students take up higher education here, while in developed countries, it's at least 50 percent. We would like the number in India to go up to at least 20 percent." However, an expansion in higher education is not feasible unless there's a commensurate improvement in secondary education. As Qamar adds, "With SSA, the enrolment of students in primary schools has gone up, as a result of which the number of students aspiring for secondary and senior secondary education is also going up." Such aspirations, however, may be clipped all too soon, given the woefully inadequate infrastructure in place for secondary education.

The haves and have-nots

The giant strides that India has to make in secondary education is clear from a report prepared by a Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) committee headed by Rajasthan Education Minister Ghanshyam Tiwari, with several educationists as members. The report, submitted in June last year to Arjun Singh, Union Minister of Human Resource Development, recommends measures to achieve universalisation of secondary education by 2020, while pointing out the roadblocks on the way. The central government constituted CABE in July 2004 with a term of three years.

"Elementary education of eight years is no more adequate — it neither equips a child with the necessary knowledge and skills to face the world of work nor does it empower her to deal with the challenges of a globalising economy. What career avenues — professional or otherwise — are open to a child with merely 8 years of elementary education?" says the report. If children are not offered the conditions necessary to complete a minimum of 12 years of education, it's tantamount to denying them opportunities to find a career, the report adds.

Illustration: Farzana Cooper

Pertinently, the CABE report also notes that the benefits of India's reservation policy in higher education are unlikely to reach those it's intended for in the absence of a strong secondary education system. "…A large majority of children and youth belonging to SC and ST community [Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe] do not have access to secondary education; less than 10 percent of the girls among SCs and STs have access to the plus two stage. Without secondary or senior secondary education, benefits of reservation to SCs/STs will remain elusive," the report says.

Indeed, across the country, it's clear that those who are left out of secondary education are more often than not from less privileged backgrounds — the so-called 'backward' castes, children from poor families, and girls. In a paper published in the Economic and Political Weekly in May 2005, political economist Manabi Majumdar shows how secondary and senior secondary schooling in India remains "highly selective", based on her study of secondary education in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. She writes, "…while the average level of high school completion is itself low in the state of Andhra Pradesh, some people suffer much more than others in this respect, on account of belonging to the 'wrong' caste, class, gender or location. Only 1 percent of ST rural women have finished high school in the state. Indeed, disparities in secondary participation between the haves and the have nots and between villagers and city dwellers appear so wide that they suggest the existence of two practically incomparable worlds of education in the same state."

The Planning Commission accepted the CABE report in principle, but soon after, it diluted CABE's recommendation that the typical secondary school should be like a Kendriya Vidyalaya, says educationist Anil Sadagopal.

The CABE report (PDF)

Even in a state with excellent development indices such as Kerala, where there is almost no gender gap in secondary education and disadvantaged groups have a high number of high school graduates, Majumdar points out that "relative disparities in this respect [access to secondary education] exist between the rich and the poor, and the forward castes and Dalit groups". Adds Madhusudhanan C, a state executive member of the Kerala Sashtra Sahitya Parishad, an organisation that has worked actively in the state's literacy movement, "In Kerala, there are secondary schools within a 5-km radius in most parts except for tribal areas in five or six districts such as Idukki, Wayanad, Pathanamthitta and Palakkad. If children have to travel for 30 km to access a school, then they may decide not to study at all."

Qamar, who was also a member of the CABE committee on secondary education, says that there is a link between drop-out rates and socio-economic profiles. "In a paper I did studying 30 schools, I found that the quality of the school's output was dependent on the socio-economic background of the students," he says. Government schools, in particular, cater to a stratum that faces external pressures such as poverty and lack of support at home, in turn leading to higher number of drop-outs, he adds.

In Andhra Pradesh, activist Bharat Bhushan says that the problem of drop-outs is high at the secondary level in rural and tribal areas. "Only two out of 10 children in Class I go on to Class X," says Bhushan, attributing the shocking statistics to lack of secondary schools and poor quality of teaching and learning in the existing schools. These figures pertain to the Telengana region (areas such as Adilabad, Karimnagar, Warangal and Medak) and rural and tribal pockets, he adds.

Swati Chavan, a social worker who is part of the Integrated Development Initiative for Rural Children in Maharashtra, points out that while there is access to primary education in the state, the same does not hold true for secondary education. "In particular, in the western parts of Maharashtra, the drop-out rate of girls is very high after the eighth standard," she says. This is not only because of lack of school facilities but also due to inadequate teacher involvement. "There will be one secondary school for five or 10 villages. How can children walk all the way to school in a mountainous region, especially during rains?" she wonders.

These are questions that the CABE report tries to address. School systems, the report says, should strive for equality and social justice, transcending discrimination that may arise because of gender, economic disparity, societal norms on caste and community, location (urban area or rural), disabilities (physical and mental) and cultural or linguistic differences. However, these inequities seem bound to remain given the current circumstances, where the government involvement in secondary education is much less than what is expected of it.

Public Vs Private

The CABE report says that almost 25 percent of the secondary schools today are private, unaided schools whose "clientele comes only from the privileged sections of society". As Qamar says, "Private education has always played an important role — we have different types of private secondary schools, such as private unrecognised, private recognised but unaided schools, and private, recognised and aided schools." In Kerala and West Bengal, it's common to see private aided schools, which are schools run by private managements that receive government grants. Going by the Sixth All India Survey Data, the CABE report notes that private aided schools account for over 46 percent of all secondary school students.

The overwhelming participation of the private sector in secondary education, however, in no way absolves the government of its many responsibilities. Quoting the Kothari Commission report of 1964-66, the CABE committee points out that the commission recommended using six percent of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) on education. While this level of investment was supposed to have been made by 1986-87, it hasn't been achieved even four decades later, resulting in 'under-investment' in access, enrolment, classrooms, teachers and other facilities, says the CABE report. The current allocation of expenditure on education is 3.95 percent of the GDP, with secondary education getting a negligible 0.94 percent in 2000-01, according to the report.

To improve access to secondary education, experts agree that the government should invest more money. Unfortunately, the Centre has baulked at involving itself even in primary education, more so when it has to be on a collision course with private schools. Already, the government has diluted the terms of a bill meant to make education a fundamental right for children in the 6-14 age group, by stating that schools do not have to adhere to a clause requiring them to reserve 25 percent of the seats for poor children. This was one of the clauses that educationists hoped would work towards building a common school system, wherein all children in the neighbourhood would go to the same school, irrespective of class or caste.

Similarly, though the CABE committee report advocates a common school system, the government seems to have already shown its disinterest. Says educationist Anil Sadgopal, who was a member of the CABE committee on secondary education, "The CABE report was accepted in principle, but soon after, the Planning Commission diluted our recommendation that the typical secondary school should be like a Kendriya Vidyalaya. The Commission started saying that instead of Kendriya Vidyalaya norms, SSA norms could be extended to secondary schools." Such a move would result in parallel streams of education with poor quality being accepted as a part of secondary education, points out Sadgopal.

The CABE committee, incidentally, had worked out the expenditure that will be incurred if all secondary schools are managed like Kendriya Vidyalayas. The total costs in such a scenario do not exceed six percent of the GDP but that does not seem to have been enough to convince the government. The report does not mention how many additional schools will be needed to meet the future demand. However, it presents two estimates, one projection based on the 100 percent success of SSA and the other, the 75 percent success of the programme. In the case of the former, the report estimates that 88,562 additional classrooms will be required in 2007-08 and over 1.3 lakh additional teachers.

Finding funding

A worrisome trend in government schools, undoubtedly a factor contributing to their poor performance, is the fact that almost 95 percent of the government grants go into paying staff salaries, says Qamar. "There is no money for buying teaching learning materials, for cleaning or blackboards," he explains. The ratio should be at least 80:20, with 20 percent of the grant being used for improving or creating infrastructure, he adds. To ensure that government schools are more efficiently managed, a committee comprising members from the neighbourhood could be asked to take decisions concerning the school, suggests Qamar.

Neeru Snehi, associate fellow at the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi, says that there are several examples of successful private-public partnerships. "There have been initiatives like DPS [Delhi Public School] being given the responsibility to run two-three government schools in Gurgaon [in Haryana]," says Snehi. In this way, the private schools can manage the schools for a while and use their expertise to train teachers, she adds.

In her paper, Majumdar notes that earlier, "religious and linguistic minorities received encouragement from the government to establish academic institutions of their choice and often received financial aid. In particular, minority communities have had a vital role to play in the educational development of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Many attribute the early educational advance of these two states to such instances of public-private collaboration."

Drop-outs and walk-outs

As of now, in the absence of a strong secondary education system, it's clear that the ones suffering the most are those from less privileged backgrounds. Across India, experts say that statistics point to higher drop-out rates among disadvantaged groups.

Of course, Sadgopal argues that the term 'drop-out' is in itself a misnomer. "It's a misused terminology that doesn't put any accountability on the system. The children are actually walking out because there is no quality education," he says. Poor children can ill-afford to spend their time in classes that are taken badly, or in schools that have no infrastructure or teachers. Instead of looking for the reasons that are behind the problem, the government appears to be trying to implicate parents or children for the 'drop-out' rates.

KSSP's Madhusudhanan points out that in Kerala, the syllabus is one of the reasons behind drop-outs. "The standard of the curriculum after class seven is quite high, it's aimed at students who want to get into engineering or medicine," he says. Eventually, the students who lag behind are those from poorer backgrounds, mainly because they do not get adequate support from their families, who are busy grappling with livelihood concerns.

Moreover, in a situation that's perhaps not unique to Kerala, the highest number of drop-outs is seen in the ninth standard. Says Madhusudhanan, "Schools undertake a filtration process so that their tenth standard results are not affected in any way." The students who usually fail to survive this process are from SC and ST backgrounds, he adds.

Majumdar notes in her paper that in Tamil Nadu, the transition rate from upper primary to secondary is low for SC/ST girls. "Only about 30 percent of those who enroll in grade 8 reach 12. For SC/ST girls, the corresponding figure turns out to be as low as 20 percent," she writes.

One method suggested to change the situation was to cut down on the number of subjects that students are taught. But Sadgopal vehemently opposes the idea of reducing the curricular load for students from certain sections while allowing others to learn more. "The Kothari Commission suggested a common curriculum for all till tenth and diversification after the 12th," he notes. If Maths or Science were to be made optional for some students, they will be at a disadvantage later in their lives, while looking for career options, he adds.

Scope for improvement

Obvious ways to stem drop-outs would be to strengthen government schools, providing for a higher number of qualified teachers and better infrastructure. The CABE committee report has already set down comprehensive norms that secondary schools should follow, ranging from having one classroom for 30 students, ensuring safe drinking water facilities and separate toilets for girls and boys to computer labs. Experts also suggest granting freeships or scholarships to those from disadvantaged backgrounds to encourage enrolment in secondary and senior secondary schools.

The CABE report notes that expansion of secondary education can be achieved by setting up new schools, upgrading existing elementary schools into high schools by providing more infrastructure and adding to the facilities in existing secondary schools to accommodate more students. About 2.5 lakh additional high schools can be created by upgrading elementary schools, notes the report. Whether the government will heed the committee's recommendations, however, remains to be seen. Mewat's future, and that of girls like Shama, for one, will depend on the government's actions.